dcsimg
As featured in The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, and more!

Taxes


Your baby has just been born and no doubt turned every aspect of your life upside down in the best possible way. Now is the time to make sure your financial house is in order. Here’s a 10-step account and financial checklist to lay the groundwork for your little one’s successful future.

New account checklist for new babies

1. Apply for a Social Security number for the baby: An SSI number is the linchpin to open a bank account in your child’s name, purchase savings bonds, obtain medical coverage and access government benefits.

2. Review your life insurance: If you don’t have life insurance, you should get coverage as soon as possible. If you already have a life insurance policy, check to make sure it’s adequate to cover the needs of the new addition to the family.

3. Pick a guardian: Choose a family member or close friend who is willing and financially able to care for your child, should you or the other parent pass away or become incapacitated before your child turns 18.

4. Set up powers of attorney: Put in writing your legal power of attorney, which sets out who will be responsible for your financial and personal affairs should you be unable to make those decisions for yourself. You also should set up a health care power of attorney that makes your wishes known in the event you become seriously ill and are unable to participate in decisions about your care.

5. Write your will: It’s not just wealthy people who need a will. Every parent should create a document spelling out how his or her estate should be handled. The will may also include or reference legal guardianship and powers of attorney.

6. Open a savings account in the baby’s name: Choose a no-fee, no-minimum balance, online savings account. You can link the savings account to your checking for automatic withdrawals.

7. Set up an emergency fund: You should put aside money from each paycheck into a savings account with the goal of having sufficient funds to cover living expenses for six months.

8. Review your work benefits: Confirm how much paid (and unpaid) maternity leave is offered through the birth mom’s employer, and whether paid leave is available for the other parent. Determine how you will obtain health benefits for the baby, either through an employer or government plan. Consult with your human resources office on flexible spending accounts and other benefits that may apply to your situation as a new parent.

9. Check in with Uncle Sam: You can claim a tax credit of $1,000 for your new baby and take an annual tax deduction of $3,950 for each dependent child. You can also receive tax credits if you adopt a child and/or if you pay for child care. You should review your withholding status, which could mean that more take-home money is available to increase your emergency fund every month, for instance. Single parents may be able to claim head-of-household status.

10. Start saving for college: Set up a 529 savings account, which generally is not subject to federal and state taxes if used to pay for college tuition. (If the funds are used for other purposes, earnings may be subject to a 10 percent federal tax penalty.) Details on fees and other aspects of the 529 plans vary by state, so do your research.

{ 1 comment }

For a few years, a ring of criminals believed by the U.S. government to be based in India have been involved in a pervasive tax scam. Callers impersonate IRS officials, connect with American taxpayers, and convince many that they have an outstanding bill for tax payments.

The scam has been so pervasive that it has generated more than $15 million from panicked taxpayers.

CNN offers a story from a recent victim of the scam:

One of those victims was former NFL player Frank Garcia, who is now a sports radio host in Charlotte, North Carolina. When he got the call, it sounded so authentic, he left the radio station in a panic, scramming to get the money they wanted.

“The only thing running through my head is, I’m going to jail. I’m gonna be on television, in handcuffs, for tax evasion,” he recalled. “I had to follow specific steps not to be arrested. That the authorities had been contacted and in fact, they are on the way and will be there in 30 minutes.”

Garcia says he spent five hours driving to various stores around Charlotte, depositing $500 each time into a PayPal account set up by the woman on the phone. He ended up losing about $4,000.

Public figures tend to be more anxious than most people about being guilty of a crime. The destruction of a career in the public eye and a happy life is easy given the public taste for scandal and the American system of justice through trial by media.

And when you believe you might be in major trouble, the ability to think rationally sometimes disappears. To a reader, the idea that the IRS would have a PayPal account to collect past due tax bills sounds fishy, if not ridiculous. But in the heat of the moment, when you’re being threatened with jail time, you just want to problem to go away, and all possible resolutions sound legitimate.

the prevalence of media warnings about the scam has certainly helped slow down the perpetrators’ attack on taxpayers. I’ve even seen warnings on my local news broadcasts (but it probably won’t be totally effective and pervasive until reality show producers incorporate scam warnings into their shows).

Money offers a few tips, summarized below, for preventing yourself from being a victim of this scam, so while knowledge does help, as I’ve already mentioned, under stress logical reasoning often fails.

Scammers spoof caller I.D. The call may be coming from somewhere on the other side of the world, but the caller I.D. might say it’s coming from a number with a 202 area code (Washington, D.C.).

In reality, the IRS does not call taxpayers, and the organization especially doesn’t call taxpayers to inform them of an overdue tax bill. If a taxpayer truthfully owes tax, the IRS sends a bill, and offers instructions for the taxpayer to respond.

But I get how people can fall for this. Sometimes the U.S. Postal Service isn’t reliable. Sometimes you accidentally discard legitimate mail, mistaking it for junk mail. A caller can easily convince someone that they had sent notices through the mail which, from their perspective, were ignored.

Scammers ask for immediate payment. The real IRS doesn’t ask for payment over the phone, and are not in the business of setting up PayPal accounts to receive the funds or of instructing taxpayers to purchase prepaid debit cards. The IRS takes personal checks sent to official addresses and electronic payments through a government gateway, the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS) or DirectPay. That’s it.

This fact doesn’t change for taxes owed from previous years, even if you settle with the IRS for a lesser amount.

Even to taxpayers falling for the scam, it sounds like the callers are working somewhat outside the “system,” especially when they agree to settle. So an alternative form of payment might not raise any red flags.

Scammers threaten to arrest or deport their victims. The IRS wouldn’t do that. But it’s hard to believe this is not an IRS tactic when we know from media reports that tax evasion is a crime that results in arrest and deportation. If the scammers make victims believe that they could be guilty of tax evasion, the fear of being arrested is in their mind before the scammers “confirm” that will be the result of failing to pay.

And if you happen to be an immigrant fearing deportation, either because you are in the country illegally or believe it’s easy to be mistaken for someone in the country illegally, the threat of deportation could be so frightening (especially if you are escaping a dangerous home country) that you’re willing to do anything to remain in the United States.

Here’s what happens when you really do owe back taxes.

First, if you earn a paycheck from an employer and haven’t filed your taxes, the IRS will eventually catch on, and you will be expected to pay what you owe if you haven’t already through paycheck withholding. If you have paid taxes every year you owe taxes, but haven’t paid enough, you will still be expected to pay the remainder of what you owe.

The IRS will send you a notice in the form of a bill, identifying how much the government believes you owe and give you a deadline to pay. You will owe penalties and interest beginning with the date that tax payment was due, and that will be included on the bill.

If you disagree with the IRS assessment, you can call the IRS at 800-829-1040 to discuss the matter. But if you do owe the money, you will have to come up with some solution to pay. That solution could be paying immediately, as the IRS requests, agreeing to an installment plan, where you can pay the taxes over a period of time, or coming up with an offer in compromise.

The offer in compromise is available to people with a financial hardship, but the IRS must determine it would never be able to receive the full amount of tax owed.

If none of the above can resolve the issue, the IRS can resort to filing a federal tax lien, a legal claim to your property. The IRS may issue a levy, seizing your wages or bank accounts. These can continue until your tax bill is paid in full or the IRS can no longer legally seek repayment. You can lose your house, your retirement funds, and your income.

Because these consequences are so dire, it’s understandable that people are on edge when they receive a call purportedly from the IRS and therefore vulnerable to this widespread and successful scam.

Have you received one of these calls from someone claiming to be from the IRS? What happened on the phone call?

{ 3 comments }

There’s some good news for American taxpayers this year. First of all, it was recently announced that President Obama would not seek a reduction in tax benefits for those who invest in 529 plans for saving for their kids’ education. Even though it is the wealthy who benefit from this tax break, it is still represents a potential for middle class tax savings, and a reduction in benefit was a bad idea.

401(k) plans are the primary retirement savings vehicle for the middle class, particularly as more employers enroll new employees automatically in the plans. And for those who have the ability to maximize their contribution each year, the new calendar year offers an additional opportunity.

In 2014, the IRS did not adjust the maximum contribution from the previous year. But this year, the maximum contribution to retirement accounts, which include 401(k) accounts, 403(b) accounts, most 457 plans, and Thrift Savings Plans, will be $18,000, up $500 from $17,500.

Savers and investors aged 50 or older can take advantage of a catch-up contribution, effectively increasing the limit for those approaching traditional retirement age. In 2015, taxpayers who meet this age-based criterion can contribute an additional $6,000 above the regular maximum of $18,000. As a result, if you are 50 or older, you can contribute a maximum of $24,000 into these tax-advantaged accounts. That’s up from a total of $23,000 in 2014.

The total contribution limit, including employer contributions, has increased from $52,000 to $53,000.

The benefits of a 401(k) plan are designed to be directed primarily at people who most need an incentive to save for retirement. This may help contain the tax benefits within the middle class. The government does this by applying a maximum level of compensation to which matching benefits apply. In 2015, only the first $265,000 in an employee’s compensation over the course of 2015 may be applied to the company’s matching formula. That income limit has grown from $260,000 in 2014. That’s a sufficiently high maximum and should cover more than just the middle class.

To illustrate, if a company matches an employee’s contributions at a rate of 50% up to a limit of 5% the salary, an employee with a $100,000 salary deferring $15,000 will receive at most a $5,000 matching contribution (5% of the full $100,000 salary). If an employee at the same company ears $400,000 in compensation throughout the year, deferring $15,000, the matching contribution will be $13,250 (5% of the $265,000 maximum compensation, not $20,000). There are additional rules in place that require a company to balance benefits between highly compensated employees (those earning $120,000 or more) and all others.

In 2013, new regulations required 401(k) plan administers to explicitly state in quarterly statements how much investors are paying in fees. Previously, this information was not easy to discover. While you could (and should) look at the various prospectuses in search of management expenses fees or expense ratios, expressed as a percentage of assets, there were at least two obstacles:

  • The expense ratios force you to do your own calculations to determine how much money you’re spending in fees.
  • Not all fees are included in expense ratios. Some funds, like annuity-based mutual funds, don’t have expense ratios but certainly have fees.

To maximize your 401(k) contribution in 2015, spread the $18,000 across the number of paychecks you plan to receive throughout the year. That’s a contribution of $1,500 each month, $750 twice a month, $692 every two weeks, or $346 a week for those age 49 or younger. The calculation for those over 50 who want to max the contribution are $2,000 per month, $1,000 twice a month, $923 every two weeks, or $461 a week.

If your contributions are recorded in the form of percentages, don’t forget to change your contribution to take into account raises and bonuses. If you are expecting your company to match your contributions at some level, if you reach your 401(k) contribution limit before your last paycheck, you may miss out on free money.

Here’s a quick overview of my experience with 401(k) accounts over the past few years, over which time I was employed by a large company in the financial sector, I left that job to work for myself full-time, I sold a business and collected proceeds as income for a few years, and am now back to earning only self-employment income.

Last year, I had the option to contribute part of my self-employment income into an Individual 401(k) plans or a SEP IRA, but I did not do so. Theoretically, I can still choose to invest in a SEP IRA for 2014, so as I prepare my tax return, I’ll determine whether this will be beneficial or not.

In 2013, I was purely self-employed, and with still receiving income as a result of the sale of an asset with installation payments, I won’t qualify for a tax-advantaged retirement plan.

In 2012, I was for about half the year an employee of a company, during which time I faithfully contributed a portion of my income to a 401(k). For the remainder of the year, I have been and will continue to operate this web site as a consultant for that company, and I have not been contributing to a tax-advantaged retirement plan during that time. Assuming no financial tragedies and modest desires, my retirement needs are met, though I’m not sure what I want my retirement to look like.

In 2011, I worked fully for myself. Without an employer, I had no access to a regular 401(k), but I did initiate an Individual 401(k), which follows the same rules. By the end of the year, I expect to have maximized the employee portion of my 401(k) contributions at $16,500 with extra invested for the employer portion.

My 2010 contributions fell short from the maximum by about $700, and a portion of that is due to leaving the company in the middle of December. I received the full company match, a 100% match on the first 4% of my salary that was contributed to the plan, in every pay period.

In 2009, I contributed the maximum $16,500, but I didn’t plan for an extra paycheck at the end of the year, so that last paycheck did not include a contribution to my 401(k). As a result my imperfect calculation, I missed out on a portion of my employer’s matching contribution. Some employers match after taking all contributions for the year into account, but mine contributes on a pay period basis. Any pay period that I did not contribute to my 401(k), the company did not match.

In 2008, I missed the full contribution amount by $1,000. That year, I made several changes to my contribution rate and lost track of what my rate needed to be in order to maximize my contribution.

The following table illustrates the change in 401(k) contribution limits over the past several years.

Year 401(k)
Maximum
Catch-Up
Contribution
Maximum
Allocation
2015 $18,000 $6,000 $53,000
2014 $17,500 $5,500 $52,000
2013 $17,500 $5,500 $51,000
2012 $17,000 $5,500 $50,000
2011 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2010 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2009 $16,500 $5,500 $49,000
2008 $15,500 $5,000 $46,000

Photo: urban_data

{ 2 comments }

With the new year, every dollar you earn in the United States, whether the money comes from working or from your investments, is subject to being taxed by the federal government at a level higher than last year. Recently, the IRS announced the tax rates for 2015, and while the rates are the same as last year, the income brackets have increased due to the government’s application of inflation.

Just by looking at the numbers, more of your income will be taxed at lower rates, but as the cost of living gets more expensive every year, that offset doesn’t mean much. Earning more money also means paying more taxes — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be trying to earn more money. It’s more preferable than earning less money. As I’ve been reassured over the years of owning a successful business, owing more tax means you’re doing something right.

The tax brackets presented herein apply to income you earn in 2015. You may be paying estimated 2015 income taxes throughout this year, and if you are, these are the rates to use for your calculations, but the majority of readers need to worry about this table next year when completing the 2015 income tax return. For the 2014 tax returns due April 15, 2015, use these 2014 federal income tax brackets and marginal rates.

What are marginal rates?

Every year, I touch on this concept, because I found it a little confusing when I first began earning money and so much of the public doesn’t understand this. There’s a big misconception about taxes. People are afraid to earn more if it means they’re going to be “bumped into the next tax bracket.” It is not true that being in a higher tax bracket will cause all of your income to be taxed at a higher rate. The only income tax at the highest rate is the income you earn above and beyond the lower threshold for that rate.

Make sure that sinks in. You will always owe the lowest tax rate, 10 percent, on your first $9,225 of earned income if you file as a single individual (not filing jointly). You could be a CEO earning $5 million this year, but even still, your first $9,225 is taxed at 10 percent. That’s how the brackets work.

So if your total taxable income is $9,000, you owe 10 percent of that, or $900. In this case, your marginal tax rate, 10 percent, is exactly the same as your effective tax rate. You get your effective tax rate by dividing the amount of total tax you owe over your total income. This is what Warren Buffett has famously referred to when explaining how his secretary pays more tax than he does. Buffett earns a lot of income from investments which are taxed at a lower rate than earned income, and that smaller percentage affects the average — the effective tax rate for all his income.

One more thing to keep in mind is that if you are employed and your employer takes tax payments from your paycheck automatically, you pay your 2015 tax bill throughout the year. The total tax you owe when you file your tax return takes that into account. If your total tax bill is less than what you’ve paid to the federal government throughout the year, you’ll get a refund. If you haven’t covered your entire bill through paycheck withholding, you owe the government. There is always a lot of confusion about this, particularly when those in charge of policy “lower taxes.” (If taxes are supposed to be lower, why did I owe money this year after receiving a refund last year?)

The 2015 federal income marginal tax rates and brackets.

Read the full article →

{ 0 comments }

2014 Federal Income Tax Brackets and Marginal Rates

by Luke Landes
Taxes

Anyone who likes getting a look at their future tax expenses might be interested in seeing what next year’s tax brackets and tax rates will be. The IRS has now announced the official rates and brackets for 2014, although the numbers have been predicted for months because the IRS uses a simple process of inflation ... Continue reading this article…

12 comments Read the full article →

5 Responsible Uses for Your Tax Refund

by Luke Landes
5 responsible uses for your tax refund

For most citizens of the United States, tax season is over. There’s no longer a need to run around gathering documents. You’ll stop seeing television commercials for TurboTax and H&R Block in which each insinuates the other is a deficient company. You can stop thinking about government’s wasteful spending and income redistribution — which always ... Continue reading this article…

10 comments Read the full article →

Should Public Employees Go Bowling?

by Luke Landes
Bowling

Whether you’re watching a twenty-four hour news channel, the local news, or national news “magazine” programs like 20/20 and 60 Minutes, the program directors need to be concerned about ratings. Television ratings are everything to those who work in this industry. If you can’t get an audience to watch a program, there are no eyes ... Continue reading this article…

10 comments Read the full article →

TurboTax vs. H&R Block: The Battle

by Luke Landes
H&R Block Tax Professional

As the I.R.S. is now accepting federal income tax returns, a war is intensifying. The war is between the major tax preparing companies. Intuit’s TurboTax, with its online and desktop software, and H&R Block, with its storefronts and online software, are the major opponents, and the battlefield is media, and the warriors are their advertising ... Continue reading this article…

7 comments Read the full article →

Some Taxpayers Can’t File Income Taxes Until March

by Luke Landes
Taxes

Thanks to tax code changes like the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, the law that put an end to the fiscal cliff bickering and uncertainty around this year’s tax rates, the IRS is behind with their normal process of updating forms and testing computer programming. While the government is usually ready for taxpayers to ... Continue reading this article…

9 comments Read the full article →

Fiscal Cliff Bill Passes: American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (H.R. 8)

by Luke Landes
Senate

Late last night, the United States House of Representatives passed is designed to avoid the fiscal cliff, the bill already approved by the Senate that avoids the fiscal cliff, the automatic tax rate reversion and spending cuts agreed to last year by Congress. With recurring drama every few months, the government seems to be taking ... Continue reading this article…

16 comments Read the full article →

Plan for the Payroll Tax Cut Expiring in 2013

by Luke Landes
Tax rates

Missing from discussions about the so-called fiscal cliff is the option to continue the payroll tax cut. To boost the economy, President Obama and Congress introduced a stimulus bill in 2010 that reduced the payroll tax, money collected at the time of each paycheck from employers and employees (workers with W2 forms). The employee’s share ... Continue reading this article…

20 comments Read the full article →

2013 Federal Income Tax Brackets and Marginal Rates

by Luke Landes
Tax

When you file your federal income tax return before April 2013, you’re filing your 2012 taxes, and the 2012 income tax brackets define the amount of tax you owe to the government before credits and after-tax adjustments. The first paycheck or consultancy fee you earn in 2013 falls under new rules, however. The 2013 income ... Continue reading this article…

13 comments Read the full article →

Should Congress Eliminate the Capital Gains Income Tax?

by Luke Landes
Paul Ryan

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has selected a running mate, Paul Ryan, who has proposed eliminating the income tax on capital gains. The Vice President of the United States doesn’t have the authority to change the tax law, of course, so there’s no reason to think this idea or the rest of Ryan’s fiscal plan will ... Continue reading this article…

50 comments Read the full article →

Sales Tax for Online Purchases

by Luke Landes
Modem

Today, the voting for the Third Annual Plutus Awards is open. If you are a fan of Consumerism Commentary, please vote for this site as the “Best Single-Author Personal Finance Blog.” Also take a moment to vote for all of your favorite personal finance blogs. Bloggers can also vote for their favorite financial products and ... Continue reading this article…

13 comments Read the full article →

Be Generous to Reduce Your Estate

by Guest Author

This is a guest post from Michael Maye at our partner site TheStreet.com By Michael Maye Individuals looking for a simple and effective way to reduce their future taxable estate should consider the annual gift exclusion. What is the annual gift exclusion and how does it work? Every U.S. citizen is allowed to give anyone ... Continue reading this article…

6 comments Read the full article →

The Delaware Tax Loophole

by Luke Landes
Delaware Memorial Bridge

Have you ever wondered why there are so many banks headquartered in the state of Delaware? This small state — where I happened to spend four years of my life while at college — is friendly to businesses. For a century, Delaware has boasted friendly tax codes and lax incorporation laws, inviting savvy business owners ... Continue reading this article…

12 comments Read the full article →

IRS Looking For Your Offshore Bank Accounts

by Luke Landes

The more money you have, the more likely you are to cheat on your taxes. The rich have more opportunities to try to hide assets and income from the Internal Revenue Service, particularly through offshore bank accounts. In the United States, banks are required to report income earned by their customers on savings and investments. ... Continue reading this article…

7 comments Read the full article →

How to File a Free Income Tax Extension

by Luke Landes

I finally provided my tax details to my accountant yesterday. As I expected, there won’t be enough time to work out the details before today’s tax filing deadline, so I’ll be filing extensions. In years past, when I filed for myself and my taxes were simpler, I usually waited until the last day. My procrastination ... Continue reading this article…

12 comments Read the full article →

How to File Your Taxes for Free

by Luke Landes

The federal government can only operate with the help of the millions of individuals who earn income in this country and dutifully pay taxes. You would think that, in order to ensure a smooth revenue stream of considerable size, the IRS would make filing taxes as easy and painless as possible. That’s obviously not the ... Continue reading this article…

11 comments Read the full article →

TurboTax 2012 Online Review

by Luke Landes
tt-featured-img

This is a relatively long review of TurboTax 2012 Online, software for completing tax forms and submitting them to both the federal and state authorities. I’ve updated the review to reflect the changes to the software in 2012 (for filing 2011 tax returns). Recently, the IRS began accepting federal tax returned filed electronically. Even before ... Continue reading this article…

67 comments Read the full article →
Page 1 of 1012345···Last »